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The Garrison Common Cottages, also known as the Robinson Cottages, are one-storey houses southeast of Trinity Bellwoods Park. They predate Confederation, lack heritage protection and some have been demolished recently. The house at 40 Mitchell Ave., right, has recently been sold and may also be vulnerable.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

What's worth keeping?

That's the question facing Toronto as some parts of the city experience rapid, intense development: Which buildings deserve to be protected as heritage?

And downtown, a group of neighbours is casting their attention to a set of cottages that are older than the country – but which are being cut down. Stories such as this one are a symptom of heritage planning that is constantly trying to catch up with development proposals, and city staff are considering a major effort to get ahead of development and aggressively study the entire city.

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Now dubbed the Garrison Common Cottages or Robinson Cottages, the houses, originally 40 or 41 of them, were built as workers' housing between 1858 and 1865 on what's now Adelaide Street West and Mitchell Avenue. Two have recently been demolished for new development and two more, at 40 and 44 Mitchell Ave., have just been sold.

Trying to get those buildings designated as heritage is the goal of the neighbours' group. "There is so much history there," says organizer Dolores Borkowski, a Mitchell Avenue resident. "But they are poor people's homes and I think that's why they're seen as disposable."

Her view is understandable, since many of these one-storey houses don't look like much in their current state: 40 Mitchell's façade is covered by a flaking coat of paint, while its neighbour has an aluminum-clad porch and a faux-stone cladding.

Yet the former at least has much of its original brickwork intact, and the two represent well-made buildings that are part of a very early example of planned development in Toronto. "Two words, I think, describe them: sophisticated and exceptional," says Stephen Otto, an authority on Toronto history and built form and co-founder of the Friends of Fort York.

"Sophisticated, in that most property owners at the time were building little rows of cottages for rent, attached and usually of stucco, and not more than four or five units."

Lawyer and developer James Lukin Robinson commissioned 32 semi-detached cottages and either eight or nine detached ones – each on large enough sites to allow for a yard and vegetable gardens. The scale was humane and the size of the project was "unlike anything else in the city at the time," Mr. Otto says.

They were also somewhat fancy, with their facades of red brick ornamented with yellow. That level of craft was unusual; in 1850s Toronto, working-class people lived in wood-frame stucco houses.

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Researchers haven't been able to trace their pedigree, but it is likely that they were designed by an architect, and a good one. Mr. Robinson was working around the same time with distinguished designers, Kivas Tully and Cumberland & Storm. At the time, Cumberland & Storm were designing two of the best buildings in the city: Osgoode Hall and University College.

Nearby, another pair of the cottages sold this year and were demolished; they are now being replaced by a pair of new houses.

So how did this happen? Why haven't all the remaining cottages been listed as heritage sites? In short it's because the city's heritage planners are badly overworked and devote their time to properties that are facing specific threats of demolition. "It's a lack of resources," says Ward 19 councillor Mike Layton, who represents the area. "We know there are heritage properties out there that aren't listed … but staff simply can't keep up."

"Our work is largely driven by growth," acknowledges Mary MacDonald, manager of heritage preservation services at the city planning department.

In the case of the Garrison Common Cottages, four of them were listed after a study of the area in 2005 – chosen because they were in the best shape and because planners couldn't afford the time to research all of them. Two of them, at 719 and 721 Richmond, have had their façades restored and rebuilt, and from the front look more or less original. As for now, Ms. MacDonald says, "We are well aware of the situation."

The bigger picture needs attention, though. The areas of the city that are facing the most development pressure – and where planning is most open to development – is in and around the downtown core, which is also the area richest in built heritage.

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"We wind up asking, What do we want to keep?" Ms. MacDonald says. "And the larger question, a very different question, is, what matters to people? What are the landmarks for different faith communities, for different waves of immigration? Not everyone in Toronto has the same history. We believe that the city's architectural heritage represents community and social value as well."

To address that broader question, Ms. MacDonald says, the heritage planning office is now thinking about a broad and proactive study of the entire city: an effort to take a real inventory of what matters, from Etobicoke to Scarborough, whether or not it's currently in danger. In 2018 the department plans to hire an outside consultant to study this idea and develop a budget and timelines. "What's the best way to do it? How to cover the city? And how would that work get inserted into the planning process?"

It will be a big job: there are 100,000 buildings in Toronto. But this sort of comprehensive approach is desperately needed. Right now, heritage protection is focused on a few areas of the city – such as King-Spadina and now Yonge and Eglinton – where condos are coming. But some of the oldest buildings in the city, such as the Garrison Common Cottages, remain overlooked.

Likewise important pieces of the city's 20th-century heritage are vulnerable. An apartment complex on Valley Woods Drive, near York Mills and the Don Valley Parkway, won two national architecture awards in the 1960s; it's about to be torn down for a condo. It has never appeared on the heritage register, either.

Ms. MacDonald is well aware that the current process is imperfect. "If you look only at the pretty Victorian commercial buildings, then you're getting a very particular slice of the city's story," she says.

That's true. And right now Toronto isn't even saving all of its important Victorian heritage, never mind harder cases. As development reshapes the city, it's important for Toronto to know what it was and what parts of its past are worth holding on to.

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